It was the year 1949. John George Haigh, also known as ‘The Acid Bath Murderer’, had killed his latest victim and was dissolving her body in a vat of sulfuric acid. He assumed that the acid would eliminate all traces of his victim making it impossible to identify her and charge him with murder, but he was dead wrong. Even though this crime occurred long before DNA analysis was possible, diligent forensic work uncovered the identity of Haigh’s victim and he was found guilty of her murder.

Flash forward to the present day and we still encounter many cases where bodies are fragmented, burned, or partially dissolved either on purpose or as the result of an accident. Nowadays DNA can be used to positively identify a body, but this type of analysis is costly and does not always work on poorly preserved remains. Here are three ways that an individual’s identity can be determined when DNA analysis is just not an option.

 

1. Smile wide: dental x-rays and dentures.

Dental x-rays are considered one of the best ways to positively identify a body. Many dental features, such as tooth root curvature, tooth position, impacted teeth, extra teeth, and tooth crown anomalies, are unique to a person and frequently survive intact while other parts of the body do not. This technique of identification is especially useful when police suspect the identity of the victim. Dental x-rays taken while the individual was alive can be compared to post mortem x-rays in order to confirm the identity of a body.

Dentures were the downfall of John George Haigh. When police combed through the human remains that had not fully dissolved they recovered a complete set of upper and lower dentures. Although the acid had almost completely dissolved most of the bone, it had not damaged the dentures. Because the victim’s dentist had retained a cast of the custom-made dentures, she was able to definitively say that the dentures belonged to Mrs. Olive Durand-Deacon. In some areas of the world now, dentures are imprinted with the name or initials of the wearer, making it even easier to identify the victim in the case of an accident or murder.

 

2. What lies beneath: surgical implants.

Often surgical implants are constructed of durable material, such as titanium, that can survive fire and chemical submersion. Additionally, surgical devices are usually deep within the body, providing them with some protection from fire or chemicals. In the present day it is common for medical devices to be imprinted with serial numbers that can be directly linked to a patient.

Surgical implants were the key to identifying some of the victims of the 2009 bushfires that tore through the Australian state of Victoria. Thousands of homes were destroyed and numerous people lost their lives. Human remains, no matter how small, were subjected to CT scans. Several of the bodies scanned possessed identifiable medical devices. These devices included hip and knee prostheses, pacemakers, and even fragile coronary artery stents. Despite the severely burned condition of the bodies, some positive identifications were made by matching these surgical implants with medical records of those missing in the fire.

 

3. The long and short bone(s) of it: skeletal diseases and injuries.

Although we strive to avoid breaking bones and contracting diseases during our life, it is evidence of injury and illness that can identify us after death if antemortem x-rays are available. A simple broken arm might not be sufficient to positively identify a body, but unique or extensive skeletal injury can be. Additionally, some diseases, such as, tuberculosis, syphilis, and psoriasis, can sometimes cause skeletal damage that would be visible in an x-ray.

Evidence of severe skeletal injuries helped identify the body a man recovered by police in Canada in 1998. When the skeletal remains were found not only did they show evidence of healing skull and rib fractures, but also a healing surgical trephination (a hole surgically cut in the skull during life to relieve pressure on the brain). The body was suspected to be that of a man who had gone missing a month earlier, but the DNA analysis was inconclusive and dental records were not available. Consultation with the suspected victim’s family revealed that several months earlier he had been attacked and afterwards received hospital treatment. The x-rays from this hospital visit were pulled and compared to the distinctive injuries visible on the skeleton, resulting in the positive identification of the victim.

 

DNA analysis is an amazing identification tool and makes for exciting television, but as presented here forensic scientists have a few tricks up their sleeves when DNA cannot be used. Dental records, surgical implants, and skeletal diseases and injuries can provide a wealth of information  about an individual even when the body is burned, mutilated, or poorly preserved.

 

Your Turn: Do you know of any other methods, techniques or simple ways to identify a body without DNA? Fascinated by a tidbit you’ve read here? Tell us in the comments — we’d love to hear from you.

Comments

comments

14 Responses

  1. jameslwoods

    bodies can also sometimes be identified through the use of facial composites created by forensic sketch artists, which can be run through facial recognization databases to find a match in dmv and criminal record databases.

    Reply
    • Jasmeen

      Do you by any chance know where one would look in order to do a facial recognition? My mother went missing in Mexico in 2007 and a body found the next day matching her description. I feel like we could have been lied to about dental records because it’s Mexico and bribes are normal. I have a photo of the Jane doe and was wondering if a facial expert would be able to identify the body. The body was taken violently so that’s why it’s been so hard to believe for sure. I know this is random and u might have no idea what I’m talking about,I just wanted to ask because I have searched soooo much online and can’t find anything 🙁

      Reply
      • The Forensic Outreach Team

        Hi Jasmine, thanks for your comment. We’re sorry to hear about your mother and the circumstances under which she disappeared. Are you asking whether it is possible to identify it is your mother’s body? This should be simple to do with a DNA test.

  2. joseph

    Just asking, is it possible to identify a dead body by analysing the level of toxic elements. Let say someone was an autoworker or a mechanic before his or her death, and the body has been decomposed or it is not possible to carry out DNA analysis for identification. Are there specific reference values for heavy metal concentrations with regards to various occupations that can be of use in this case? For instance, we know autoworkers will be exposed to high levels of heavy metals such as lead, in comparison to people in other occupations. similarly, dental laboratory technicians are also exposed to some heavy metals in comparison to medical laboratory technologists. I would like to know if occupational exposure to toxic elements ( heavy metals) can be of any use in identifying a dead body in forensic toxicology.

    Reply
    • joseph

      Thanks a lot for the reply. However, I would like to know if there is any empirical evidence for that. I can’t find studies on the topic

      Reply
  3. Catharine

    Tattoos, if the tattoo artist keeps records or there is photographic evidence of the deceased with the tattoo visible.

    Reply
  4. Abhinav

    personal artefacts are the most common form of evidence which can be counted for positive identification unless it’s a murder .Apart from that any body marks or scars or moles etc can be counted in for positive identification.In forensics will always go for fingerprints which might help if the body is not decomposed yet.

    Reply
    • The Forensic Outreach Team

      Hi Abhinav,

      Thanks for adding this comment. You’re absolutely right — recovering personal artefacts is perhaps one of the first steps law enforcement will undertake to identify human remains (e.g. good old-fashioned detective work). We tried to focus on the biological counterparts to DNA identification in this article, though — hope that makes sense.

      Reply
  5. Rebecca Miller

    In April 2012, my 84 year old father wandered up into the California mountains near his home in a rural town where he was well known. He had told my mother that he was going to the post office (which he did every morning) but he never came back. He had beginning dementia and had suffered from some heat stroke the day before during a sudden heat wave. She called the sheriff and they immediately went into action. Search and Rescue spent countless hours looking for him – they gave their time every weekend for over a year.

    His remains were not found until January 2014, by two hikers, near the area where Search and Rescue had been looking – but further on, up a deer trail. They knew it was him because the time and place matched and his ID and personal items were there with him. They rejoiced that he had been found and the coroner’s office (also jubilant) called us at my home (where we had brought my mother to live). The coroner asked if my mother had his dental records but she did not. This news was received with much concern. My parents had wanderlust all their lives, my Dad had almost perfect teeth and my mom could not remember anything about his dentists and had kept no records. We noticed soon after that the local newspaper reported that an unidentified man’s remains had been found. The coroner’s office tried from January to April to find some DNA material that might have survived being exposed out in the open for so long but could not. One of the coroners there said she would call every dentist where my Dad might have gone.

    After a time, they had to send his case on to Washington, DC. They said it would be 6 months to a year for them to try to find a match (which is this May 2016). We have had no word for a year. I called once after a few months about what we might expect if they had no luck and I was told quite firmly that my father’s remains would be considered as a John Doe and be retained in the original coroner’s office. I didn’t have the heart to tell this my mother and she has been in despair and showing signs of dementia herself. For two years, she kept hoping that he would turn up alive somewhere and the blow last January when his remains had been found might have been softened if there could have been some final resolution. We don’t know who to turn to. It’s almost like a reverse missing person. If this had happened in the days before DNA, I would think we would have been able to claim him based on his ID and wedding ring, etc. when they found him. Is it sometimes impossible to make a match in a case like this after a year and 5 or 6 months? I’m hoping it might be because of a backlog of cases, perhaps. Thanks for any advice that might be provided.

    Reply
  6. Ness

    Apart from DNA is there any biological methods of identifying human remains-in this case,unrecognizable

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Error: Please enter a valid email address

Error: Invalid email

Error: Please enter your first name

Error: Please enter your last name

Error: Please enter a username

Error: Please enter a password

Error: Please confirm your password

Error: Password and password confirmation do not match